ASSE: Understanding the Implications of Fire Ground Strategies

Does your local fire department have the necessary resources to fight a fire at your facility? Do you know what resources are required?

Frank Baker, CSP, CFPS, ALCM, from Employers Security Insurance Co./Affinity Management Services of Indianapolis, offered insight for safety professionals into the world of firefighting and the requirements – water pressure, structural, perimeter, communication – needed by a fire department to effectively fight a structural fire. Unfortunately, his informative and interesting presentation was viewed by a sparce audience at a June 25 session at the American Society of Safety Engineers' (ASSE) 2007 Professional Development Conference in Orlando, Fla.

The few audience members were told by Baker that safety professionals "have a definite role in both prevention of fires and after an incident occurs." An important part of that role is understanding the limitations of their local fire department.

According to a 2006 study:

  • 60 percent to 75 percent of fire departments don't have enough fire stations to service their areas, according to the Insurance Services Organization (ISO).
  • 49 percent of fire engines are 15 years old or older. "How many of you are driving a 15-year-old car?" Baker asked.
  • 44 percent of fire departments in communities of 50,000 or more residents have fewer than four responders – the industry standard and an NFPA recommendation – on each apparatus.
  • 55 percent of fire departments have thermal imaging cameras, which allow them to "see" into smoke-filled rooms and buildings.

"Your fire department might not have sufficient resources. Safety issues may restrict firefighting efforts. Understanding firefighting equipment limitations and capabilities is critical," said Baker.

Fire departments are rated on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the worst. The total number of departments rated between 1 and 5 added up to fewer than the number of departments rated 10.

And sometimes ratings don't mean much, Baker acknowledged. "The Charleston (S.C.) Fire Department is rated a 1. It's an outstanding fire department," he said, after showing coverage of the fire in which nine Charleston firefighters lost their lives earlier this month.

So, what can a safety professional do? He or she should:

  • Invite the local fire department in to inspect the facility and conduct a pre-incident survey to determine access to the building, types of products produced (flammability, toxicity, etc.), number of employees, etc.
  • Ensure that all fire detection and suppression equipment is in good working order and functioning at maximum levels.
  • Provide easy access to utility shut-offs.
  • Have an incident plan that includes personnel management, so you know who is in the building and you can account for them once alarms have sounded and employees have evacuated. The Charleston, S.C., firefighters who perished re-entered the building because they thought an employee still was inside, which turned out to be a false report.
  • Check with your local water department to determine if you have adequate water supply and water pressure at nearby hydrants and make sure those hydrants are bled on a regular basis to remove any sand or silt that might hamper firefighting efforts. If you do not have adequate water supply or pressure, inform your fire department so they can respond accordingly with tanker trucks. You might want to think about investing in a water storage tank for emergency situations. Baker offered this simple formula for determining if fire flow (gallons of water needed per minute, or pgm) is adequate: Multiply the width and length of your building and divide it by 3. Multiply that number by the amount of the building that could be involved. For example, a 15,000-square-foot building divided by 3 equals 5,000 gpm times 25 percent. The building requires 1,250 gpm fire flow.
  • Ensure, whenever possible, that the areas surrounding buildings are paved. Fire engines are not "off-road" vehicles and, because of their weight, easily can get mired down in loose soil or mud. "A lot of companies build ponds and do all kinds of landscaping," said Baker. "While it looks good," it's not a good surface for parking fire engines and ladder trucks, he added.

Demolition by Fire

"One thing to keep in mind," Baker said. "When a fire occurs, your building is under demolition by fire."

By that, he means that in many cases, the building cannot be salvaged because modern building materials – even those deemed "fire retardant" – ignite quickly and burn fast. The petrochemicals in many surface materials and things like carpets and paints are, literally, adding gasoline to a fire. Further structural compromises some building owners make, such as drilling holes through fire walls to run electrical cables or plumbing lines and placing heavy HVAC equipment and chillers on roofs, mean the fire can spread faster and the roof is compromised.

To understand how fire departments approach fires, Baker offered this insight: "They will risk their lives a lot to save saveable lives. They will risk their lives a little in a calculated manner to save saveable property. They won't risk their lives for people who already are dead or unsaveable property."

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